Recently, I saw Spielberg’s The Post, and I left the theater feeling happy, elated that eventually… yes, eventually... the independent press will raise the alarm again, exposing errors of judgement within the government. Granted, the free press is raising the alarm all the time, but in the midst of continuous noise, it’s hard to know which sirens are calls for help and which ones are incoming faxes. Depicting the Washington Post’s decision to publish large excerpts of the classified Pentagon Papers during Vietnam, The Post had me amped up, raring to write a Progress and Tea post about why we should all be reading newspaper stories. The movie was wonderful in the same way that Spielberg movies usually hit all their marks—memorable quotes, tension oozing between scenes and dialogue, with the added bonus of a John Williams’ soundtrack.
The movie was everything I expected, and clearly it was direct response to the number of times Trump, Pence, or one of their talking heads tried to discredit the press. Remember that gem of a time back in February 2017 when Trump called the new media “the enemy of the American people”? I got on a roll, listing out all of the times the Trump Administration had tried to discredit the media, but it wasn’t serving a purpose other than to show that Trump is using his pulpit to bully. Soon, I suspected that I would be echoing a lot of Samantha Traci’s points in “Fake News Fatigue”—i.e., a tiredness of politicians and citizens attacking anything they disagree with as “fake news” instead of using critical analysis/fact- and bias-checking skills.
The real fake news—intentionally misleading and unfactual stories designed to create partisan splits—should be the very reason for a refocused celebration and renewed championship of detailed, collaborated investigative reporting. I hate thinking that anyone but the hardest Trump supporters actually wish ill-will to reporters, want state-sponsored propaganda, or want journalists to stop making information available, so what was the point of another pro-journalist article?
I really thought I was being repetitious, but then I watched a satirical trailer for a new movie called Newspaper Movie staring late night host Seth Meyers. Of course, the trailer looked familiar; it was complete with men in white, button-up shirts, clanky typewriters, and panning shots of the printing press in action. True to form, it “laid on all that journalistic integrity pretty thick.” I was laughing so hard at the realization that this satirical trailer did a very good job capturing the tones and tropes of journalism movies like Spotlight, All the President’s Men, and now The Post. I found it hilarious, and then I started questioning why I had liked The Post so much. It followed the journalism movie playbook to a tee, culminating in “will they/won’t they?” like a typical Rom Com. Of course, they
Am I wrong to like a movie that was unoriginal? No, I’m not. Because when it comes to journalism, I want writers to check off all the expected boxes. I want whistleblowers to come forward, and I want journalists to protect their sources. I want facts to be corroborated and verified because I like accuracy, not retractions. I don’t want journalists to be original; I want them to be accurate. I want all of this, but more importantly, America needs this. We have enough talking heads; we need more fact-finders.
Leave the editorializing to the opinion writers and bloggers, like me and Samantha Traci; we will gladly will pick through a million articles to put together a narrative to show why the world needs to change. Comedians will craft jokes to expose flawed thinking. Let screenwriters tell the stories of heroic reporters and publishers in the manner that suits them best. These are the places for imagination. There are stories to tell, and people to tell those stories. But none of this matters if there isn’t a tireless group of reporters sniffing out tiny leads, establishing trusting relationships with sources, and providing the fourth check the United States government.
As Philip L. Graham, former Washington Post publisher, is remembered for saying, “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” Reporters set the stage for our national conversations by exploring events as information becomes available. As much as I love historical fiction, we cannot wait for every event to be analyzed once all the information is available. Instead, we must demand and encourage as accurate as possible reporting while events unfold. Reporters may get it wrong occasionally, but a misstep or retraction here and there cannot be allowed to fully dismantle the institutions that we expect to look for the unseen, ask the hard questions, and put together that first draft.
I know it’s hard to be excited about journalism when it seems to be synonymous with the disorganized, often angry panel of experts filling the screens of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, but there are many journalists putting their lives and reputations on the line for a story that must be told. Nobility exists in the investigation, in fact-checking, and in the pursuit of truth. The best reporting is not sensationalized, and it’s not the Breaking News stories posted ten minutes after a crisis beings. The best comes from detailed, dogged pursuit of credible information.
Journalism isn’t meant to make everyone comfortable. I suspect that the best journalists are the ones who are comfortable being uncomfortable, doing whatever it takes to get an accurate story.
If we need a movie, however clichéd, to remind us to read a newspaper, then so be it. We should be celebrating reporters. Everyday reporters are releasing vital information for our consumption; we just have to be willing to read it, even if it doesn’t fit the narrative that we want to see. Drown out Trump’s childish antics designed to discredit the press by reading, sharing, and discussing news articles, not just ones released by your favorite media entity.
Read often. Read widely. And be loud about it. (Not loud in a yelling, going-to-get-kicked-out-of-the-library-way, but it’s okay to share and talk about what you’ve read.)